Why I read Jane Austen

December 17, 2016 at 12:51 pm (books, history, jane austen, jasna, research) (, , )


Yesterday, 16 December 2016, being the anniversary of the birth of JANE AUSTEN, JASNA – the Jane Austen Society of North America – published their annual journal, Persuasions On-Line. It is interesting to see papers presented at the Washington DC AGM (annual general meeting) that _I_ sat in the audience to hear.

[NB: I did not submit my paper, “Sketching Box Hill with Emma,” for publication.]

The article I opened, however, was among the Miscellany: Gillian Dooley‘s article on “‘The Bells Rang and Every Body Smiled’: Jane Austen’s ‘Courtship Novels’.” I think all fans of Austen have come up against the “dismissive” stares, shrugs, and “Who?” comments. Because I publish and speak on aspects of Austen and the early Austen Leighs (my research subject), I’ve mentioned “Jane Austen” in job interviews. Several interviewers had NO clue who she was, never mind what she had written. Others recalled “costumed fans” and, yes, ‘Courtship’ films.

Has it been film then that has created this atmosphere of Austen as a kind of ‘romance writer’? For, in many cinematic offerings, the dramatic underpinnings of her novels disappear in order to make a pleasing, coherent, and “short” adaptation. The one thing that is always in place (of course) is the heroine’s ‘romance’ storyline. And it’s the couples that fans remember and love to discuss:

elizabeth and darcy

Even those couples who might have been:

marianne-and-willoughby

But does that mean the films and even the novels are “Courtship”-based? I have long contended that I read Austen because they are slices of life, true windows into a time, place, milieu, that otherwise I only read about through history texts. The films may stick in the memory, but the novels are what I return to again and again. And, luckily, puzzling out the letters and diaries the Smiths and Goslings have left behind has allowed me to grasp small details that Austen’s original readers “knew” but which I have had to “learn” about.

So, this morning, I was musing over the MANY ‘romances’ of the story of my Two Teens. Would I term their lives – as any resultant writing must, out of necessity, condense their real histories – as center on ‘Courtship’ merely because courtships begin and conclude within the covers of a book about them?

To answer one question posed by Gillian Dooley, “There are courtships in the [Austen] novels, but are they in any overarching sense primarily ‘about’ courtship?” with a simplistic ‘No’ should, therefore, also cover the “history” of this large, extended family.

To take one “for instance”: The Colebrooke sisters, Belinda and Harriet, come into the circle of the Smith family in 1816/17. The basics of their history: Harriet dies young and Belinda marries Charles Smith (Emma’s brother). More can be deciphered about Belinda’s life because she married. And, it is her marriage that ended her life: Belinda Smith died in childbirth, before the age of 25.

It was all a “fact of life” back then.

Even today, we seek out a partner; live together; marry if we can. No one wants to be alone – and, given the cold world in which we live, a little human warmth within the home is something everyone can appreciate.

Carey Mulligan

(yes, I’ve long thought Carey Mulligan a quintessential Belinda)

I’ve recently found a lovely portrait (perhaps by her eldest sister-in-law, Augusta Smith) of Belinda Lady Smith. And even a tiny silhouette of her sister Harriet Colebrooke. Harriet was even younger, only 18 at her death. For the longest time her (ultimately) fatal illness was the focus for poor Harriet’s historical remembrance. She was an appendage; a younger sister who obligingly got out of the way; a dead sibling who made the “heroine” that much more attractive to the “hero”. And there was even an “over the top” drama-queen of a mother! Belinda, left on her own by her sister’s demise, was due to be “rewarded” by marriage to a good and very eligible young man.

To to my mind, however, it was hard not to think of Belinda as “the other woman”: Mary Gosling, the girl next door and Charles Smith’s second wife was the first diarist I unearthed (now, ten years ago).

Talulah Riley

Yes, young Talulah Riley, as Mary Bennet [above], put me in mind of Mary Gosling – rather tossed aside as a close friend, never mind as a potential love interest, once the doomed Colebrooke sisters came on the scene.

As an historian, I knew – nearly from the beginning – what the “end result” for EVERYone was. I knew when they were born; who they married (or didn’t); knew when they died. What I had to unearth was all the LIFE in between the pertinent “dates”.

And even now there comes surprises; welcome surprises, as it happens. Even someone like Harriet Colebrooke, on the scene for only a handful of years, takes on new importance.

“Why?” you might ask.

“Because, she had a fella!” A young man, who does appear in Emma Smith’s diaries, but who seemed just one of the crowd, was actually interested in, and pursued, Harriet Colebrooke.

Like her elder sister, Belinda, Harriet came to any relationship with a LOT of baggage. Charles Smith had the unenviable task of “approving” the young man, especially once he began to suspect that Harriet was transferring her affections to himself.

Harriet never lived long enough, of course, to see her sister married to Charles. I don’t even know if Charles ever really had to say, “I’m not interested”. That mystery is still inconclusive.

Which brings me back to Austen and the ‘Courtship’ Novel. In such a novel, there are often MANY vying for the hand of the heroine. There are those wholly unsuitable:

stillman2

There are those whom the observer hopes will win out in the end:

darcy

As Dooley asserts, “I would expect the heroine [of a courtship novel] to have one or more men actively playing court to her throughout the novel.  And I don’t think that any of Austen’s novels quite fit that standard.” She sums up by saying, “it is the assiduous attention of the hero to gain the heroine’s hand throughout the courtship novel that I think is the missing element.”

Just as in life.

Even when the “grass is greener” on the other side of that proverbial fence, as when Charles begins to suspect that Harriet’s interest in himself is pushing her interest in William Sumner (her beau) to one side. Here is no flat declaration of love, but a mystery: Does she? Doesn’t she? How do I handle it?

And everyone LOVES a mystery.

When Elizabeth Bennet turns down Darcy’s proposal, few contemporary readers would have foreseen them ending up together at the novel’s end. There might even have been NO marriages at the end of Pride and Prejudice. Contemporary Readers were enjoying the ride, living in the moment with all the Bennets. Suffering their disappointments and, yes, rejoicing over their happiness. That ‘happiness’ included marriages, and those came within pages of the end is good fortune for readers who – metaphorically AND literally – could close the book at the end of a concluding chapter in the characters’ lives.

In a courtship novel, the marriage is the “be-all”. It has to end it all because little more was the novel’s focus. In Austen’s slices of life, the characters live on. The clues of the mystery behind attraction (even repulsion), love, loss, daily life in another land and another era, keep readers coming back for more.

If a MAN had written Austen novels, would we even be discussing “courtship” as their basis – or would it be treated, as courtship (without quotation marks) deserves to be treated: as a MOST INTERESTING part of life, something in which EVERY reader can sympathize.

Austen’s novels touch on economics (those with little funds as well as those with very fat purses, indeed); privations and sacrifices; sibling love and sibling rivalries; one’s role within society; the tumult of the times – even though, like today, one lives life somewhat disconnected (unless war comes to touch one personally). Austen’s novels help explain the minutiae I’ve seen discussed or recorded in the papers of the Smiths; and the Smiths explain what should be of more importance in Austen’s novels.

They are the perfect MATCH! History informing literature, and literature helping to inform biography.

colonel brandon and marianne

marianne and colonel brandon

And a coincidence, as could only happen in real life, that Emma Smith becomes (though eleven years after the author’s death) a niece by marriage to Cassandra and Jane Austen, Frank, Charles, and Henry Austen, and Edward Knight. That Emma Austen read Austen’s Emma prior to marriage, and with her intended, is a fitting close for that chapter of her life – one which can be said to have ended in marriage. Life is about so much more than birth-marriage-death, but as a fundamental courtship and marriage is a commonality that happens to most, and interests even those who do not experience it first-hand.

The “mysteries” of their lives keep me digging for more clues – even as some “new” clue only leads to further mystery. It is the pleasure derived from “digging” again and again, that Readers, who read Austen with a mind open to discovering new clues amid well-known strophes, enjoy as much as (if not more than) the ‘courtships’ with which each novel ends.

“[T]he plans and decisions of mortals,” to use the words of the narrator of Mansfield Park, forms the basis behind Two Teens in the Time of Austen, as well as the six novels of Jane Austen. “Courtship” is part of the story of life, and “courtship” may be the most human part in general. The need to feel connected, to someone (mate or friend), is a powerful emotion.

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2 Comments

  1. Sabine said,

    Thank you so much for all your wonderful blogposts throughout the year. It’s such a joy to see and read the enthusiasm in your posts and how the 19th century suddenly becomes alive through your words and findings.
    Wishing you happy holidays and an amazing new year.
    Sabine

    • Janeite Kelly said,

      Danke sehr, Sabine! It’s heartening to read comments, especially in the dark of winter! People DO care!! and blogs, too, brought me friends such as you – for which I’m grateful.

      Prosit Neujahr! and best wishes for 2017 back to you and all your family.

      k

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